Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Why even bother?

In that floaty moment before falling asleep the other night, I had an epiphany, It was not an uplifting one. The epiphany was this: there are billions of words already written, why do I suppose I have anything to add?

Falling asleep with such a thought made getting up a little harder. I did, of course, because I needed to hug the children and cook and eat and practice Tae Kwon Do; all good reasons, but that fire to write? Down to a mere flicker.

I made myself sit in front of the computer, but my motivation refused to be cajoled into making an appearance. So I did what every self-respecting, discouraged writer would do: I surfed the web. Only writing-related sites, of course.

Blogs, publishing news (Hey! Middle Grade novels are the darlings at Bologna! Cool, I have a MG novel, after all. *Nasty, hissy voice: "Yeah, and who says yours will be one to catch anybody's attention? Besides, if your book were really deserving, it would have been in the hands of an agent at Bologna!" *back to me* "lalalalalal, I can't hear you!",) contests, writing workshops and, oh here's an article by Alexander Chee, who recalled his writing classes with Annie Dillard:

Yes, everything’s been written, but also, the thing you want to write, before you wrote it, was impossible to write. Otherwise it would already exist. You writing it makes it possible.

My current condition: whip-lashed and bruised on the head.

Dear friends: keep writing. Don't give up. Write your story.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

In voice we trust

--It's diffi
cult to define, but I know it when I see it.

Isn't that one of the most frustrating explanations to a
straightforward question like, "what is voice?"

While I am dissatisfied with such an explanation, I do understand why the answer is so
elusive. Some of what makes up voice can be (somewhat) quantified and objectively stated-- choice of words, length and style of sentences, quirks, a unique way of seeing things, a clever way of describing observations, and here is one way--a voice worksheet devised by Barbara Samuel O'Neal--for writers to start considering the factors that go into their voice, but a lot of it is in the realm of the hard-to-define.

Recently I read two books, one of them women's fiction, the other YA, because I was drawn to the strong voice in each. The experience of reading them was like being in the company of the
wittiest, most observant, and coolest dude/dudette, on a ride through their lives. Great fun.

Until about half way in. Then The Voice became too much. And I realized how much each book had been dependent on The Voice because plot, pacing, and other important story elements had been relegated to the background. I became hyper-aware of the recurrent phrases and speech patterns ("I kid you not" over and over again in one,) that became grating.

I finished both books, hoping that what I was experiencing was nothing more than the common Middle Flab that plague many novels, and that maybe the ending would be better. The endings were...okay.

Often, agents and editors say voice is the most important thing in writing. I think I understand. A strong voice can draw a reader in, entertain, and present life in a new light, all great reasons for readers to pick up a book.

But when is too much too much? When do we stop being enthralled with the charismatic guest with his hilarious anecdotes and witty remarks and move away to seek out the more thoughtful, less flashy people?

I say: when the voice overpowers all other considerations and when keeping up the voice becomes an end to itself.

I know, I know. This answer is as vague as the one that started off this post. So why don't you tell me. Have you read books in which the voice drew too much attention to itself? Do you have examples of a book whose voice is perfectly matched to the story? And here is a more personal question: if you are a writer, do you think you have a voice?

[On a side note: I realize distinctive voices don't all have to be humorous and flamboyant, but I focus on these qualities because, well, (1) I had to finish two book in this type of voice long after I'd gotten tired of it and so I need to vent, and (2) quieter voices don't tend to call attention to themselves, and so they do their jobs of conveying a story, an emotion, an experience without intruding and causing their readers to mutter threats of "If I have to read one more phrase that begins with..."]

Oh and, the
always sage Scott G. F. Bailey over at The Literary Lab discussed voice in relation to story last week, touching on the question of the phenomenon known as a writer discovering his voice.

[Edited to add on 3/31. Davin Malasarn at the Literary Lab has another post on voice, to answer Scott's. Go check it out.]

Monday, March 29, 2010

Grab-A-Line Monday (a focus on Jordan Sonnenblick)

After the frivolity of my last post, I will now go back to my normal serious self. *Makes serious face...then busts out laughing.*

It's Monday! Seriousness is not allowed on Mondays! (I'll be serious tomorrow, seriously. I've already written the post, it's about voice, and you know a post about voice can have no silliness.)

I read the following in Jordan Sonnenblick's After Ever After . It's from the point-of-view of a thirteen year old boy who is completely smitten with the new girl. He sits behind her in class and has been admiring her beautiful neck when she said something funny:

I laughed. How could someone with such a perfect neck be so funny, too? Somewhere in the world, there had to be an eighth-grade girl with no neck who still told knock-knock jokes and wondered why the world was so cruel.

I laughed, as well.

Back to our regular Grab-A-Line-Monday programming. Last week,
Sherrie came over with this opening line to Stormbreaker, the first novel in the Alex Rider series by Anthony Horowitz:

When the doorbell rings at three in the morning, it's never good news.

Speaking of Sherrie, she did a great interview with Jordan Sonnenblick. And since GALM is a little on the slim side this week, I thought I'd tell you what I know about him as well.

I picked up Drum, Girls, and Dangerous Pies because I was trying to find out more about an editor who was judging my middle grade novel in a contest. In an interview, she mentioned she liked this book, so I dutifully checked it out from the library. Duty might have been the original motivation for me to read this book, but it had nothing to do with why I inhaled and loved it. I have to resort to a cliched answer here: it made me laugh and cry. A longer reason is that it was written with such a big heart and such authenticity, I couldn't help but become involved in the story.

So then, I did something I'd never done before; I contacted the author. He replie
d the next
day, really gracious and friendly.

I just finished After Ever After, and once again, laughed and cried as I read it. No
w, before you entertain the suspicion that it is yet another futile attempt to bank on the success of the original and therefore not very good, (you have seen Godfather II, haven't you?) you should (a) know that Sonnenblick resisted the idea initially, and (b) go read it.

Then come back and we'll discuss what you think. And don't put down the book just because it seems to start three times: a prologue of sorts, and then an end (I know, an end at the beginning?), and the real beginning.

I found that what I enjoyed the most in Drums are found in AEA as well:
  • a close relationship (between Steven and his little brother, Jeffrey, in Drums,Jeffrey and his friend Tad in AEA)
  • the easy humor
Drums is told by the eighth grader Steven, and AEA by Jeffrey as an eighth-grader. Both stories feature cancer prominently but neither is merely a cancer book. Character and plot, the king and queen of fiction, drive the story.

I'll end this post with another quote from After Ever After, which describes my current phase with my middle grade novel. Jeffrey is on a 50-mile charity biking event, and this is how he describes the last stretch:

It was my favorite part of a long ride: when you're already tired and crampy, but you're more than halfway done. And it would be so easy to tumble off your bike into the grass and quit. but you know you won't.

What caught you this week?

Friday, March 26, 2010

Would you like Orlando Bloom or Ralph Fiennes as your inner editor?

It's Shelley's fault. When she posted about Harrison Ford being her inner editor, I realized I didn't need to be contented with mine--a disembodied monotone voice that never loses an argument and leaves no room for doubt in her highly critical opinions. I decided to re-imagine my inner editor.

[Warning: this frivolous post may nauseate the serious-minded among you,
but I promise it is still completely and utterly writing-related. Really.]

Who would I rather have as my inner editor?

e who can shoot arrows at my plot holes.

Someone who will cut down the clutter
that sprouts up like bamboo in my story

Someone who knows patience from having to chip away at a wall with a tiny tool, and who wouldn't mind diving into sewage if it means freedom on the other side.

Someone who knows resilience by having to rely only on his left foot to create.

Someone who knows that being vulnerable and being willing to share authentically, even if it means you open yourself to rejection and misunderstanding, is the way to touch your audience.

Someone who can give me the "Come on, you can do better than that" accusing look, in that irresistible smoldering manner that I cannot but jump back into working.

Someone who knows my every fear and will not buy any of my excuses; and who, although doesn't read fiction, approaches every lecture he gives, every technical or philosophical paper he writes, as telling a story.

[Do you know every single person here? Can you name one thing about each of them? ]

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Gianna and Jenna as reps of MG and YA

Yesterday I showed the similarities between two very different books, in the superficial--their titles, the names of the main characters--as well as the more fundamental--the questions they have and the people in their lives.

Today, I'd like to use these books as examples of what I think differentiate between MG and YA novels.

The age of the main character

A 12-year old narrator will most likely find readers in the 8 to 12 age range and a 17-year old one would be more suitable for teens. This is not just for the sake of such innocence-related topics such as sex and violence and language, it also has to do with the way a middle-grader views the world compared to how a teen does. Typically the younger readers think in more straightforward manner, closer to black and white, and more likely to think about one event on its own or at most related to one or two other events. Teens have become more nuanced in their views. They have come across cynical views that they may be trying on for size, or in some cases, their lives have been such that they are, in fact, cynical.

The stakes

Sure, in 39 Clues and Harry Porter and Percy Jackson, all MG novels, the fate of an entire world rests on the shoulders of their young protagonists. But readers know that these worlds exist only on the page and in their imagination. In YA, the choices and ramifications are much closer to reality and it's much easier for readers to imagine these events actually taking place in their own lives.

Gianna's choice is between submitting a project that her mother completed or re-do the entire project while risking a beloved race. Jenna's choice has to do with [spoiler alert] leaving her best friends in a hell she knows too well for the sake of clearing her name or rescuing them and putting her own future in greater jeopardy. Sacrifice or security?

The writing

This includes sentence length and vocabulary but more than that, it shows up in the structure, the tone, and the degree of subtlety. Mary E. Pearson doesn't employ a much larger vocabulary The Adoration of Jenna Fox than Kate Messner does in The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. But Pearson is a lot more experimental in the structure, for example. The story isn't purely linear; there is a lot of back-and-forth, rumination and short flashbacks thrown in as the plot unfolds. There are quick, breathless sentences that are designed not so much to inform the reader but to provoke thinking. Questions are brought up and not necessarily addressed, except in a most nuanced way.

If it seems I am much more in awe of the writing in
The Adoration of Jenna Fox than in The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z: I'm not. I am merely pointing out the choices YA writers have as compared to MG writers. If Messner were to write her MG book using all those experimental techniques, the book would failed. Gianna Z needed to be written in the way it was because it is a perfect fit for its readers. Does it take more skill to do one or the other? I don't think so. I think the skill sets are different. With a cornucopia of choices, the skilled YA author knows how to find boundaries that work for a particular book. With limited choices, the skilled MG author knows how to mine every available possibility to make that book shine.

The character

Most readers want to identify with the main character, which usually means the mc has to be likeable. The flaws s/he has are of the forgivable sort. A mc who is mean-spirited and unforgiving will not do well in a MG novel. In YA, however, there is more leeway in what is forgivable in a mc. Most teens have felt rebellion, bitterness, yes, a degree of meanness, and are more likely to go along with a mc that feels those things as well.

Gianna occasionally feels angry at her grandmother for something the grandmother cannot help, but Gianna is clearly shown to be aware of the fact that she is being unfair while she feels this anger. And then, very soon after that, Gianna is again appreciative and loving of her grandmother.

Jenna deals with a lot of rage and bitterness, especially toward her parents. We stay in that same emotional state for long periods of time. But even though I don't like Jenna when she feels and acts like that, I am willing to keep reading, because those emotions ring true. And that is enough for the moment.

The solution

Gianna's story ends
[spoiler alert] with a cool project that is all her own, incorporating the traits that we've been shown throughout the book: her penchant for being distracted and love for drawing; running the sectionals while showing the mean girls what's what; becoming a better friend to Ruby; and accepting her grandmother's illness. Loose ends are tied, solutions are clearly the best ones.

The premise of Jenna's story makes neat solutions impossible. And that's often the case with YA novels. Loose ends abound. Again, this is because teen readers are more likely to accept outcomes that are more closely related to life and they have more likely to have the maturity to deal with imperfections and compromises. Moral dilemmas, especially, are something they grapple with daily, and know that there are no easy answers. Books that present perfect endings may be comforting, but books that make them think are the ones that they will cherish.

I have made many assertions in this post and I feel simultaneously obnoxious and free. There, my thoughts are out there. I invite your feedback, disagreements, conjecturing and questioning. You may call me obnoxious only once, and then you'll have to debate with views and thoughts and opinions, and not personal attacks.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Quick revision update

1,727 words today on a complete re-write of a scene. That was the biggest scene revision for the blue thread. I have a few more scenes that only need tweaking. Or at least I think that's all it needs!

Tomorrow, I start on a different thread. Pink? No, purple. Yes, purple.

Gianna and Jenna

Have you met them yet? Gianna is a 12-year old scatter-brain who loves to run and draw, and is desperately trying to finish a leaf project so she wouldn't miss out on an important cross-country race, and just as desperately trying to accept what is going on with her grandmother.

Jenna is a 17-year old who woke up from a yearlong coma to a new life that leaves her confused and angry. She too has a grandmother who loves her and who helps her deal with the difficult questions she faces.

The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z by Kate Messner is a realistic, contemporary middle-grade novel that shows how a girl deals with family and changes, and her struggles with difficult choices that she would rather not face.

The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson is an almost-realistic, almost-contemporary, sci-fi young adult novel that
shows how a girl deals with family and changes, and her struggles with difficult choices that she would rather not face.

The stakes are higher for Jenna and the voice and structure of these two novels are very different, but I was struck by how, at the core, young people all have the same basic questions: who are they? Who do they matter to? Who matter to them? What are they going to do about the supposed path they're told to take that they don't want to?

And what to do with the one who flutters their hearts, of course.

Have you read either of these books? What do you think?

Tomorrow I will discuss how I think these two books exemplify the differences between MG and YA novels.

Monday, March 22, 2010

What is the color of your revision?

Mine is in bright, almost fluorescent chartreuse, pink, purple and blue. and looks like this:

Confession: I used to think that using pretty stationery is just a distraction, a gimmick. Give me sweat and blood anytime! Me, I'm a real worker, in the trench, no fun, no sun, and definitely no pretty colors.

Then I got over my snootiness.

Anyway, I am back to revise my MG novel, again. This time, I have identified 5 main threads that need to be tweaked / overhauled. I've gone through the manuscript to mark each thread with a different color so I can work on them one at a time.

Do you have any specific way you revise? And how pretty are they?

Grab-A-Line Monday

A good Monday to you and welcome to another installment of Grab A Line Monday, where readers can post quotes from what they've read recently. The purpose is not only to share memorable lines, but also to bring up books that maybe others may not have come across. I mean, have you been to a bookstore lately? Did you see how many books there are? How is one to choose? For me, the most reliable way has been from recommendation, either from friends or reviewers whose taste you respect.

One of the best thing about blogging is the community. Recommendations from the blogging community have given me some wonderful reads and I'd like this to be a place where we can gather and share quotes and hopefully also find new books.

Last week, Fiddler shared from Ruth Reichl's Not Becoming My Mother:
"I have never known so many unhappy people. They were smart, they were educated and they were bored. Some of them did charity work, but it wasn't fulfilling. Their misery was an ugly thing, and it was hard on their families. It was a terrible waste of talent and energy, and watching them I knew that I was never going to be like them."

I am afraid to admit how deeply I understood this quote. And I suspect I will find many more such moments for me.

Bish Denham gave us this line fromThe Lightning Theif by Rick Riorda:

"Finally, she married Gade Ugliano, who was nice the first thirty seconds we knew him, then showed his true colors as a world-class jerk."

My contributions this week are both videos. The first has made the rounds, but in case you've been unplugged (as I have been) I thought I'd show it here as well.

[Edited many minutes later] Um, feeling stupid, can't seem to post videos. Onto Plan B: I'll link you to the blogs where these videos are posted.

On the fate of publishing, by DK.

On declarative sentences and invisible question marks. I love that someone has brought this topic up, and I especially love that his delivery is so spot-on. Enjoy.

What caught you this week?

[I am having a whole lot of trouble with Blogger this morning. The fonts keep changing size and type for me between writing and posting. I have tried to change it many times, and the formatting is still funky. Sorry!]

Monday, March 15, 2010


Some blog
gers choose to unplug during the third week of the month. I've done it once before and I think this is a good month to do so again. Good things are happening this week, Spring Break among them, as well as the necessity for me to dive back into my earlier novel for an overhaul. And yes, that IS a good thing,.

I will probably not be disciplined enough to totally unplug so I will probably read some of your posts, but I do hope to re-organize my time use this week, hopefully with great results to report next week.

See you then!

Grab-A-Line Monday

Welcome to another installment of Grab-A-Line Monday, where readers share a line or two from what they read. We've had short lines, we've had long passages, we've had serious thoughts as well as light-hearted moments. Most important, some of the lines quoted here have led some of us to read the books from which those lines are taken.
Last week, Tricia shared this quote from GOING BOVINE, by Libba Bray. a book I've placed on hold and am still the 9th person in line:

"We believe our universe may be a small part of something vast--we're one house in a cosmic subdivision of houses all right next to each other. If only we could just pop in to see the neighbors, easy as opening the front door."

MG Higgins shared from INKSPELL by Cornelia Funke:

But as soon as she tried to make something new of them, a story with a life of its own, her mind went blank. The words seemed to fly out of her head --like snowflakes leaving only a damp patch on your skin when you put out your hand to catch them.

What caught you this week? And don't forget, you can always pop back throughout the week and post in the comments.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Say nay to naysayers

In her post yesterday on
Writer Unboxed, Ann Aguirre exhorted her readers to think big, to believe in six impossible things before breakfast. An uplifting message.

What stayed with me the most, however, was this list:

(1) Graduated college
(2) Moved to a foreign country
(3) Got an agent
(4) Sold a debut SF novel written in first person, present tense, that one agent called unsellable
(5) Became a national bestselling author
(6) So
ld nearly 20 books in three years

These were the things she was told she couldn't do, that she'd gone on to achieve.

That shows courage and confidence and determination.

Why did the list make such an impression on me? Because these qualities:
  • courage
  • confidence
  • determination
don't come easily to me. I am much more incline to:
  • fear rather than to brave the unknown;
  • discount and second-guess my abilities and decisions;
  • refrain from committing to anything I am not absolutely sure of.
I look back and remember one dream that I'd given up because I'd believed in naysayers. When I was fourteen and was completely captivated by the orchestra, my desire to become an orchestral conductor met with "girls can't be conductors" and "if you're not a highly-trained string player by this age, you'd never be a conductor." I was devastated and no longer dared to dream that dream. *

These people were not necessarily trying to be discouraging. They were probably just throwing out considerations. And most likely they didn't expect someone to falter so easily.

I've given up on a few other dreams such as this and still cannot think about them without that twinge of regret in my gut. Even though I am committed to living a life without regret, and objectively I know that my life is good, I do allow that twinge to surface as a reminder not to step on the well-worn, much smoother path of giving up, but to take out my machete and cleavers and chop my way through the brambles and thorn bushes of the path I need to travel on.

Now I write fiction.
This pursuit is understood only by those others who are engaged in similar activities--artists, musicians, authors. To the pragmatic and uninterested, what I do is pure foolishness. But the post yesterday helped me realize that I've come a long way, baby; I've learn to say "nay" to the naysayers, especially the one from within myself.

So, I invite you to join me in standing tall, holding strong to your beliefs, and say a loud, NAY (don't you think its old-fashioned quality makes it even more effective?) to the naysayers who assault you from without and within.

*I chose these two conductors because the first one, Alondra de la Pana, formed her orchestra single-handedly and the second one, Shi-Yeon Sung, broke into the all-male ranks of conductors of the Boston Symphony, one of the most prestigious of orchestras. And oh, she started her music career as a pianist, as did so many other conductors. Read the story of de la Pana's
Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas. From the story of Sung's debut with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, I find the following passage particularly inspiring:
...she admitted the difficulty of the situation, pointing out that 50 years ago there were almost no women playing in orchestras. "Nowadays, nobody says 'a woman musician' in an orchestra. And the situation [with conductors] is changing," she wrote, noting not only [Marin} Alsop but the Australian opera conductor Simone Young and JoAnn Falletta, music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.

"I really hope that soon I won't get this question [of being a woman conductor] any more," she added.

Wednesday Word Count

This month, Cuppa Jolie is helping writers crack the whip on their w-i-p, as I mentioned in an earlier post. And Laini Taylor (i am reading Lips Touch right now) has Mr. Linky set up at her blog on Wednesdays, for participants to commit to a weekly word count.

My writing last week was uneven, with word count ranging from 300 to over 2,000 words a day. My goal is rather modest: 3,000 words this week and 4 chapters by the end of the month.

I don't now how I'll fare this week, but I invite you to join me in stating your goals and tapping into a supportive community.


Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Welcome, Star in the Forest

Today Star of the Forest, the middle grade novel of my author friend, Laura Resau, is being launched! Go visit Laura, and while you're there, check out her other much acclaimed novels: Red Glass, What The Moon Saw, and The Indigo Notebook.

Congrats, Laura!

Monday, March 8, 2010

Grab-A-Line Monday

I am not sure why I allowed GALM to escape me last week, since some wonderful things had happened the week before. What are these wonderful things, you ask? Well, let me tell ya! First, I had a new contributor to GALM:

She quoted from The Adoration of Jenna Fox:
[In looking up the link, I came across the book trailer for the first time. I am intrigued!]

I used to be someone.
Someone named Jenna Fox.
That's what they tell me. But I am more than a name.

Welcome, Tabitha, and hope you'll drop by again soon!

MG Higgins offered a quote she read from a book recommended by another of my blogging friends, Bish, via GALM. Love it that this happened!

The line is from The Magician's Elephant by Kate DiCamillo:

Below him were the twisting, turning cobblestoned streets, the small shops with their crooked tiled roofs, and the pigeons who forever perched atop them, singing sad songs that did not quite begin and never truly ended.

And the third wonderful thing is that my friend, Nandini, who has been so supportive, continued to drop by and offered a passage that made an impression on her. It is The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner.

He put down his pen and listened. He was a soldier as well as a scholar, and he was not unfamiliar with the sound of men screaming.

I have something that made me laugh from The Alchemyst: The Secrets of The Immortal Nicholas Flamel by Michael Scott:

"Maybe they're Mafia," Elle suggested dramatically. "My dad knows someone in the Maifa. But he drives a Prius," she added.

What caught you this week?

Friday, March 5, 2010

Need some writerly accountability or companionship?

In case you are interested, I am joining Cuppa Jolie at her blog, as we crack the whip on our w-i-p together. When I did this last Friday, I discovered it was exactly the right amount of accountability I needed, and companionship. So I am checking in periodically, to see what is going on with the other writers who are also participating.

And apparently another writer, Laini Taylor, has designated March her NaNo month. So if you want to join her on that venture, she has set up Mr. Linky for you.

Happy writing.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Wish I were a more productive multi tasker

Some weeks I spend a lot of time blogging: writing posts, visiting my favorite blogs, and participating in discussions.

This hasn't been one of those weeks. I've missed my own Grab-A-Line Monday post--I promise I'll be back next week!--and have not m
ustered up enough energy to compose comments on the blogs that I have been reading.

One reason: I'm gearing up for my TKD belt testing and am particularly nervous right now because I couldn't practice last week due to sickness and now I worry about my endurance and balance. (Honestly, Sir, my balance is off purely because of the migraine headaches!)

And the better reason is: I've been able to restart my writing flow again. My WIP has been neglected for a few weeks because I've gone back to my first novel, to polish it (for the 179th time!) I don't know how other writers work, but when I concentrate on one type of work: revising/editing, I can't seem to switch my mind to other types, say writing new scenes or journalistic articles (my gig is suffering as well.)

Now that I am able to tap into the write-new-work mindset, I am going to ride it. Blogging and commenting and supporting my fellow bloggers will have to take a back seat, but I hope you understand.

[17/365 Furiously Writing by Vinni123; Writing=Breathing by Joe in DC. Both found on Flickr Commons]